Travels in Kitchener-Waterloo
In today's paper, you'll find a story about my travels through Southern Ontario this week and in particular, the search for sleeping Liberals.
I chose Kitchener-Waterloo for this search because I've walked over that ground a lot over the past decade or so, watching the waxing and waning of Liberal fortunes. In the 1990s and well into the 2000s, it was very friendly territory for Paul Martin. Some of Martin's most staunch supporters hailed from the region and every time I followed Martin on visits to Kitchener-Waterloo from the late 1990s up to 2003 or so, it was like watching the return of a hometown celebrity.
Waterloo is also home to Research in Motion, inventor of the BlackBerry, and so a technological Mecca to political junkies hooked on serial email communication. (Pointless trivia: I'm pretty sure I was the first reporter in the press gallery with a BlackBerry, introduced to the miracle technology in early 2001 by long-time Martin supporter, and early-adopter David Herle. I know for sure I'm the first reporter to have filed a story by BlackBerry -- and it was, fittingly, Martin's exit from cabinet in June, 2002.)
Back in the election of 2004, I hopped aboard Martin's campaign around Week 2 or 3. It was his first campaign as prime minister and the spring had been dominated by stories about the Liberal sponsorship scandal. The schedule that week included a stop in Kitchener-Waterloo and the mood change was palpable. I saw people giving the finger to Martin's bus as it rolled through the streets. We went to one event where the crowd was tiny and distinctly unenthusiastic; they barely applauded when Martin spoke. At a bar that night, where all the reporters went after our stories were filed, two Kitchener men opened up a hostile discussion with some of us about why Martin had to be voted out of office because he put health-care premiums in the recent budget (that was actually Premier Dalton McGuinty, but this distinction was lost on these angry voters.) Martin emerged from that campaign with a minority, but it wouldn't be long before he'd face another election and, well, we know how that ended. And in 2008, the Kitchener-Waterloo electoral map went all blue.
Anyway, all this is to say that Kitchener-Waterloo is a pretty good vantage point to test the mood of Liberals. As you'll see from the story, there are encouraging signs for Liberals in this region right now; some highly motivated volunteers, and maybe voters too. We'll see. I went door-to-door with the NDP candidate in Kitchener-Centre, Peter Thurley, and the main antipathy we encountered was against Harper. (Though no one seemed to be blaming him for things McGuinty had done.)
At the all-candidates' debate as well, as noted in a previous post, the Conservative candidate got a bit of a rough ride. I read that this also was the case in the Kitchener-Centre debate.
It's probably worth noting that I did that door-to-door with Thurley just before the media began to dominated by reports of the "NDP surge." There wasn't much evidence of this at the doors Thurley knocked on when I was accompanying him and (his very expert, amiable) team of volunteers. People were polite, even attentive, for the most part. Thurley also encountered several voters who were definitely interested and/or voting for the NDP. He did get a few folks, though, who said they needed to vote for Redman to be sure of "not wasting" their anti-Harper sentiments. We did get a "this is an unnecessary election," and a slammed door from a woman who also managed to shout praise of Harper -- "he's doing a good job" -- as the door was banging shut.
But I was repeatedly surprised by how nice people were, generally, at the political interruption in their day. I saw the same thing going door-to-door with Karen Redman earlier in the morning. It somewhat restores your faith in the system, to see people talking politics without smears or snappy one-liners or vitriol. As Thurley said, there are sometimes moments when you see "a light go on," when people suddenly realize that the politician is at the door to listen, and they start telling their stories.
Some of those stories are heart-breaking -- and you think, no wonder they turn off the political TV chatter from Ottawa or Toronto; none of that smart-alecky jousting solves the problems they have. I'm thinking in particular here of a woman who was talking to Redman about juggling the care of her aging parents, with neither adequate money or time to do it properly. She was tired; her dad was on the way home from hospital and her mother, slipping into dementia, was upstairs, awaiting a breakfast she would need to be force-fed.
Today, Easter Sunday, with one week left to go in the election campaign, it's probably not a bad a idea to dwell on the kind of politics we see at the door, as opposed to the kind we see in the sporting ring or the political theatre. Another woman I met in Toronto this week said she always tries to remember that politicians, no matter what their stripe, have families who care deeply for them. Whenever she gets angry at something a politician says or does, she keeps this in mind. I'm pleased to report that most voters I saw this week lean in that same direction of civility -- good to keep in mind as we head into what could be an intense week in Canadian politics.